Invisible Me: Be Seen on you Motorcycle for Safety

Sure theire are drivers who don't look for motorcycles and pull out in front of you, but there are also instances when drivers simply can't see you. Better be ready. By Art Friedman.

If you have been riding motorcycles for any length of time, you almost certainly have come across a driver who, having just changed lanes into your space or turned in front of you, looks at you in surprise, and says, "I'm sorry, I didn't see you."

**No, Really **

My usual response to this statement is, "No. You didn't look." That is a more accurate assessment of what happens. Typically, the lane changer doesn't bother to turn his head to check his blind spot. Somebody turning across your direction of travel may just check approaching traffic peripherally and doesn't identify the oncoming motorcyclist since his mindset probably only includes cars.

Not all right-of-way transgressions involve such simple negligence, however. And I'm not talking about drivers who are legally blind or blind drunk. A driver's view of traffic -- and motorcycles in particular -- can be blocked or obscured by roadside objects, other vehicles, something in or on his car and other factors, such as glare. There are situations where another vehicle operator actually _cannot _ see you.

I am frequently horrified by how much a car driver's view of his surroundings can be obscured by precipitation, dirty or fogged windows, glare, objects or people in the car. When you are driving a car under these conditions, consider how easily a motorcyclist could be obscured. Remeber that next time when you are riding past a car.

I have, on occasion, driven my car past an exit or turn I wanted to take because I could not see well enough to be sure there was not a motorcycle (or even another four-wheeler) where I wanted to go. Of course, I am primed to consider the possibility that a motorcycle can occupy that unseeable space, even if it's too small to hide a car. Other drivers usually don't "think motorcycles," so being between a car and an exit lane in the car's blind spot is always dicey.

Not everybody thinks motorcycle, of course, and in such a situation, a reasonably competent and conscientious driver could make an effort to look, and simply not realize you and your motorcycle could be there.

A motorcyclist also can be hidden by an abundance of other objects on and around the road, including other vehicles, shrubbery, signs and even pedestrians. An example that comes to mind was when I was riding with another motorcyclist in a standard two-bike staggered formation. Ahead, a car was waiting to pull out of an alley. I realized that because of a light post, a sign and a pedestrian waiting for a bus, the driver couldn't see me, even though I could see the entire car (except the driver). The curvature of the road meant I would be out of his view until I was almost on top of him. Since there was a gap between us, and a line of cars ahead and no cars for a distance behind us, it seemed likely the driver would pull out as we approached. To get where the driver could see me, I moved over to the right side of the road. Unfortunately, my companion then moved to the part of the lane that I had been using to maintain our stagger. Now he was out of sight, which fortunately he realized before we reached the alley.

**Some Are Born Blind, Others Practice **

Some vision blockages are self-induced. A vehicle full of balloons, cargo in a pickup truck's bed or incorrectly adjusted mirrors can increase the likelihood a driver cannot see you. That favorite technological demon, the cell phone, also may create an obstacle to vision. Held to the side of a person's face with the mouthpiece extended forward, it partially blocks vision, and the person's arm (usually the right one) holding the phone further obscures his view. In addition, it seems to be more difficult physically for a driver holding a phone in this manner to turn his head completely.

Mirror adjustment is another issue. When I decided to write this column, I began contemplating the sizes of blind spots on the vehicles I pass. I was frequently surprised by the length of the area where I couldn't see the driver when I was passing his vehicle or it was passing me. Looking for an explanation, I began checking how the side mirrors on cars are adjusted. I discovered that if I was two car lengths behind a vehicle and following directly in its path, I could see the driver in all three mirrors approximately 40 percent of the time. In other words, car drivers are adjusting those side mirrors to see behind them rather than to minimize their blind spots. Although I know many motorcyclists also have the dubious habit of setting their mirrors to give a heavily overlapped view of the lane behind them, rather than maximizing the view of adjacent spaces, I was surprised that so many drivers, who have a large central mirror, adopt the same arrangement.

These sorts of problems are common, so the experienced rider trains himself to look for the other driver's eyes. If you can't see them, the driver can't see you. If you can't see them or if you are unsure whether you have been seen, you need to do something to increase your chances of being noticed. Find a position in the lane where you are clear of whatever is blocking the view. Flicker your headlight, or reduce your closing speed -- preferably in a manner that does not indicate you are planning to turn.

Unfortunately, tinted windows are increasingly popular, and they often prevent you from seeing a driver's eyes as you approach, giving you no way of knowing if he has looked your way. (I don't know if juries agree, but I think tinted windows should give a driver using them greater culpability when an accident occurs because other motorists are incapable of detecting signals of the driver's intentions.)

But remember, eye contact is no guarantee of safe passage. Accident reports are full of rider statements to the effect of, "He looked right at me, then pulled out."

**Looking Through You **

There are instances where a driver can look right at you, but be unable to see you. This occurs most frequently at night, where the lone headlight of a motorcycle appears to be one of the headlights of an oncoming car. Because it accelerates more rapidly than a car, the motorcycle may be well ahead of a group of cars leaving a traffic signal, but the driver preparing to pull out does not recognize it or its proximity. Those position lights in the front turn signals are your best insurance against this event, though they may be washed out by the headlights behind you. A useful tactic is to move across the lane(or lanes) away from the car ready to pull out in front of you. This will separate you from the other headlights while also giving the potential intruder an idea of how close and fast you're coming.

A similar problem can happen during the day, when a motorcycle and its rider are viewed against a background that blends with them. The best defense against these situations is conspicuity -- wear bright colors on jackets and helmets and run your headlight's high beam during the day. These actions also help an alert driver detect you when you are mostly hidden by something in the nvironment. That edge of the headlight or bit of bright shoulder can save your life.

Currently, efforts to make car operators more aware of motorcyclists are getting a lot of support, perhaps in part because such efforts were one of the four most Urgent Recommendations of the National Agenda for Motorcycle Safety. During Daytona Bike Week 2001, the American Motorcyclist Association, the Motorcycle Safety Foundation and all the major streetbike manufacturers co-sponsored the "Take It Easy" campaign, intended to remind motorcyclists to slow down and drink less, and to remind drivers to watch for them. Since deaths were down and attendance was up, it's a message that may have been heard.

When not out riding, Friedman answers e-mails at: _ Art.Friedman@primedia.com _or at _ ArtoftheMotorcycle@hotmail.com.

For more information on safe-riding equipment, strategies, techniques and skills, see the Street Survival section of MotorcycleCruiser.com.